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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Named Characters

   
Author Topic: Named Characters
Meredith
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So, I've let my sister-in-law read the draft of my first real novel. One of her comments was that I have too many named characters. I'm inclined to think that it's a pet peeve of hers, but I also don't want to reject constructive criticism out of hand.
I have named minor characters for several reasons. Sometimes, they're involved in a conversation. Other characters who know them just wouldn't say "Hey, you!" They'd use their names.
Sometimes, although the characters are minor, they're going to appear over the course of several chapters. One example is an old midwife who takes care of a woman (semi-major character) who almost dies in child birth. She's not an important character in the main story, but she is important for those few chapters. And, frankly, I get tired of calling her "the old woman".
Sometimes, a character is going to reappear. They may never be major characters, but they are ongoing characters. One example is a healer. He turns up sporadically and he's never a major character. But, in at least one case, his actions do have a major impact on the story.
What is the general opinion about naming minor characters. It just feels more natural to me. But I don't want to confuse the reader, either.

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extrinsic
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I've found that all criticism has a germ of insight behind it. Perhaps out of an abundance of kindness and encouragement, she meant something else related.

For example, I'd read a first chapter of a novel draft a few years back. Eighteen characters were introduced in the chapter, two protagonists, a host of antagonists, some in the frame of the story, others outside of it, apparently less focal characters were introduced as well. I didn't know who was who after multiple reads. They were all named and the names carried what little characterization that was developed.

It was busy for a first chapter. No idea which of the multiple trains of thought were central, which of the characters was central or which protagonist was primary. I couldn't discern what the story was about or which direction it was going in. It left me confused.

I courteously declined the project. I didn't think it was finished enough to justify the expense of copyediting, let alone a project that would earn out the frustration and anxiety it would cause me.


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InarticulateBabbler
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So you've named all the characters? If so, that's a bit much. If not, well that depends on if the story's done.

You don't have to call the midwife "the old woman", the midwife is fine--I could even stomach a Mrs. Bailey or Joan if someone relevant to the story knows them. If not, then it would be easy enough to have a character avoid addressing her and leaving her just "the midwife". But, like I said, it depends on certain factors.

If you're beginning a stand alone (that's really the first of a series), you may want to leave other characters to trail off on in the next story--in that case you might name them, but use only their first or last name for reference while it's not their (or someone close's) PoV.

I find I have a lot of name in my WIP. Because it's Historical Fiction, history dictates some of the names and what they were commonly called by; others I've had to make up (like my main cast). I have given names to supporting cast members, but those people will be involved in the story again and or in the next book. If it's a disposable character, I invest just enough to make him or her seem real. Although, this story did evolve out of the motive story and a once-disposable character swiftly powered their way into the story as a whole, it was only one that grew that big, and they filled a needed position.


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Meredith
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No, I haven't named all the characters. But in the case of the midwife, they're members of the same clan in a tribal society. And the midwife is an important and known member of that clan, even if she doesn't have a lot to do in the story. All of the other characters at that point in the book would know her except for a couple of outsiders. So I guess she gets to keep her name.
The healer will come in in the second and third books. Still a relatively minor role as a character. But something that he does will have a major impact on a major character in the second book. In fact, the result of what the healer does will be the start of a major turning point for that character.
Next read-through, I'll take a look at all of the other minor characters. Those two, I think will stay named. I'm going to have to change some names in the next revision anyway. I've decided some of them are too similar. The father/son naming scheme I was using is just going to be confusing, so I'm going to trash it.
There are only three named characters in the first chapter. And only seven named characters in the first two chapters, including the first three. All of them are either major characters or key supporting characters for the story. Five of them (the five who survive the first book) will be in all three books. One dies in the first chapter, but his death sets off the events that follow and he's the protaganist's best friend, so I think he needs a name.
Thanks for the feedback.

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Unwritten
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One alternative to 'unnaming' your characters is combining characters. At first it might seem impossible, but it can really add depth to their personalities. Some of my favorite characters have emerged from combining two minor ones. Just a thought--
Melanie

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Grant John
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I think the best advice is: do what sounds natural. Like keeping from the reader something your POV character knows, purposely avoiding mentioning someones name might seem unnatural. If someone wants to say: "Hi John" have them say: "Hi John."
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TaleSpinner
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People don't always identify the true problem.

Is it really too many names? Too many similar-sounding names? Names that are seldom used, so hard to remember? Too many characters to keep in mind? Characters who, once they leave a scene, become forgettable--then reappear and one's forgotten who they are? Characters who seem the same, or generic, without distinguishing features that help the reader remember them? Too many characters one simply doesn't care about?

Hope this helps,
Pat


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JudyMac
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Meredith,
I have found the best way of telling if I really do have too many names is quite a simple one. I hope it works for you.

Set in a small village or hamlet (up to 100 people), everyone knows everyone else, everyones elses business, and how often you hang the laundry out, and what you had for tea last night

Set in a town (up to 300) people, or in the same street. They will know your first name, not necessarily your surname, they will know your profession (fantasy setting or SF) some will only know you by sight. They will know that your daughter Chloe goes to school with their 4-times-removed cousins daughter Alice.

Set in a city, some know your first (work colleagues/close neighbours)or last name, or just by sight.

Healers, Blacksmiths, Mayors, shop owners, and inn keepers will always be known by name in the village or town in a Fantasy setting.

If you are writing SF, read size of population for ships etc.


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Zero
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Maybe in lue of omitting their names, you could subtly drive-home-harder who they are. For example if there is a repeated mention that John is my neighbor. Then I don't mind him being called John. But if he's just another random name, it's hard to put a face to the name.
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steffenwolf
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I don't know about this particular story, but when I have made a "too many names" comment, it's usually that there are so many names that I have trouble remembering who is who. Which might mean too many names introduced in a short space (if a character is introduced to a circle of 12 all at once, I probably won't remember 8 of their names). Or it might mean the name is used too sporadically--if a name is used twice in chapter 1, then by chapter 15 I probably won't remember exactly who it was. I'll have to figure it out as I go: "Oooohhhhh Joe is the doctor he saw at the hardware store, I remember now."
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Robert Nowall
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I read a writeup on H. Beam Piper recently, along these lines...John W. Campbell, longtime editor of Astounding / Analog and Piper's main market, often had a problem with Piper's stories---as in the theme of this, too many characters. The guy writing the writeup pointed out that, in these later days of television watching, readers had gotten considerably more used to different people wandering in and out and back into a story.

If your minor characters remain (1) memorable in their own right, (2) have their own backstory no matter how brief their appearance in the story is, and (3) are all distinct from each other in name, appearance, and function in the story...well, you should be all right.

(I generally have the exact opposite problem. My last finsihed-enough-to-send-to-market story ran twenty thousand words in the version I sent out---but had only six characters (two major, four minor) the entire time. Too many words, too little going on? (Yes, it got bounced.))


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Meredith
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Thanks. This is really giving me a lot to think about as I go through the next revision.
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micmcd
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I'm inclined to go with extrinsic's original thought. "Too many named characters" doesn't sound like a real problem, but if your test reader got this impression, then the real problem may be any of the following (or something not listed).
  1. Too many characters introduced all at the same time. This is particularly easy to do at the beginning of a novel, since every single character is necessarily new. It is hard at that time to tell important from unimportant characters since you are limited in the amount of "introductory" space you have. I've found it best to keep the introductory chapters as "private" as possible, in the sense that I only have one or two main characters in there, and most of the interaction is between them with only cursory mention of other characters of interest. Extras are rarely mentioned by name, even if I intend those extras to be named persons later.
  2. Unimportant people are introduced too thoroughly. If "Jill from down the block" exists in the story only because her daughter is a witness to the kidnapping, but she does nothing particularly important herself, it may be best for her only to be "Jill from down the block," as opposed to "Jill Tannen, the short, out-of-shape woman who always stays at the back of Susan's yoga class. Her husband was often out of town, and she spent most of her days reading the paper on her porch. Susan once thought that to be a sad life for a thirty-eight-year-old woman with two older children, so alone all the time, but nowadays she almost envies the woman her privacy."
  3. You are accidentally writing an Ensemble book, with a cast of dozens, all of whom are important. The best remedy for this is either to merge characters or, if you want to be soap-opera-like about it, kill lots of people.

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Doc Brown
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This is not limited to just named characters. Proper names in general (characters, cities, nations, ships, books, etc.) need to be kept under control. Proper names are powerful orientation points that require the reader to do a lot of work.

The number of proper names characters that a reader can tolerate is directly proportional to the amount of plot that passing during their use. My rule of thumb is to have no more than two proper names in one paragraph. Sometimes I must break this rule, so I remind myself that "this paragraph will take extra effort from my reader."

I will use no more than eight proper names in a chapter, twelve in a short story, eighteen in a novelette, and twenty-four in a novella. For a novel the sky is the limit, as long as I do not violate the eight-per-chapter rule.

If you have fifty or sixty named characters then your novel should be a sweeping epic of a thousand pages or more.


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MrsBrown
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Also watch for too many names per character. Dorothy Dunnet used to call someone variously by their first name, surname, position, holdings, family name, nickname, etc. Its insane until you're reading it the third time. (But her plots are worth it.)

[This message has been edited by MrsBrown (edited December 11, 2008).]


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micmcd
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Thought of something else that could trigger the "too many names" response. It may be that your test reader had a hard time remembering which character was which - something that could easily make her think there were too many names. One hidden cause of this could be if the names for your characters are all very close together.

I once read a writing book that suggested starting each character's name with a different letter. There are only 20 or so characters that you can have before this gets mighty tough, but I think a better rule of thumb is not to have the names look similar or sound similar. I would never have a Julie and a Jessie, but a Julia Smith and a Juan Carlos Gutierrez can coexist easily. Particularly if Juan insists on being called Juan Carlos. Nonetheless, I wouldn't make Jula and Juan Carlos my two main characters b/c of the first-letter-collision issue.

This accidentally happened to me with last names. I had one family with the last name Keeney, and it was important for another character to be named Kearney (an unwanted child of the family, as it turns out, so he got a bastardized version of the name). I didn't realize for a while that I had also introduced a minor character by the name Kelley in the second chapter (a Keeney and the Kearney were both in the first). To top it all off, a fairly major character (introduced in chapter four) had the first name Keegan.

I ended up leaving Keegan alone because the characters don't address each other by their last names, for the most part (one noteworthy exception), and Keegan was almost never around Mr. Kearney and Mr. Keeney. In chapters where they were together, Grayson Kearney goes by Grayson, Keegan Thynne by Keegan. Mr. Kelley got his name changed to Mr. Morgan. And that's the tale of all my K's.

Anyhow, just something I thought of that may or may not be an issue in your WIP that got the "too many names" crit.


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Meredith
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I think I do have some of this going on. I was trying a naming scheme for fathers and sons in one group. But I've already decided to trash that. I realized even I was getting confused on a couple of the character names. However, I don't think this is a major issue in book one. The confusing characters are only born half way through the book, so not really doing much in the plot, yet. Fortunately, it's really easy to change character names at this point. Search and Replace. Great function.
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InarticulateBabbler
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Meredith, I think you said much in your response to me.

If everyone knows someone, they'll know her/his name. After that, the key is how your PoV character thinks of them. I don't think seven named characters is too much for two chapters, it wouldn't even slow me down. Is the reader a normal reader of the genre you're writing? That may make a difference in what she's accustomed to seeing.


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JoeMaz
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I'm terrible at remembering peoples names in real life. The problem is only amplified in books. Does your reader have this problem with lots of books or just yours? If it's just yours, then you may have a real problem.

One thing you can do is tag people with some kind of memorable quirky identifier. Like, James with one ear lower than the other, or Robert who wears a red tie no matter the color of his shirt, or Vladimir with six kids and a funny accent that you main character can't place.

-Just a thought


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Robert Nowall
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There's food for thought. I can't remember names in real life, either---much less here, where nearly everybody posts under a phony name. And only by long contact do names generally stay with me. ("Why do you all insist I remember your names? You'll be gone before I know it...")

As for my stories...well, in my latest, working through the rough draft creating a second draft...I remember I named the lead character "Ginger" for specific reasons (among other things, she's a redhead)...gave one character an assumed name because I wanted to put in a joke about it at the end...then had another character explain her chosen name, said explanation which I forgot about until I got to revising that page. I might change all the names, or none of them.


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